UBF at the Crossroads
Many will disagree with me. “Stop exaggerating,” they’ll say. “Don’t worry, have faith! Focus on the positive. Remember what God has done. Great things happened at the ISBC. Many people accepted Christ. If even one lost sheep repents, there is great rejoicing in heaven.”
But for those who are willing to look, the situation looks grim. One major piece of evidence is that the attendance at the recent ISBC dropped by about 20% from Purdue ’08. UBF leaders have always assumed that their numbers would go up. They believed that if they just worked hard enough and prayed enough times and kept going and stayed with the program, then God would bless their faithfulness and the ministry would grow. But this time, the numbers went down, and they did so dramatically.
I’ve heard various explanations for the drop in attendance, and I have offered a few of my own. It is a symptom of malaise and low morale. Over the last three years, many natives have left the ministry, and the conflicts that led to their departure have not been addressed. Attendance at conferences can no longer be considered mandatory; chapter directors have realized that the days when they could simply command people to come are over.
None of these trends will be reversed by hope or wishful thinking. Praying more and praying harder isn’t going to work. “Just believe” won’t do. Tweaking the organization (e.g., appointing some new committees) won’t fix the problem either. Without major structural change, the decline is going to continue. UBF is in a downward spiral, and there’s a long way to go before it bottoms out.
I predict that most leaders will ignore this evidence. They will try to stay upbeat and apply positive spin. Some will point the finger of blame at Brian, Ben, me, and other infamous heretics and villains. They won’t take a long, hard look at what actually happened and why.
But suppose they do decide to take it seriously. Suppose they are stunned and begin to ask with real sincerity, “Brothers and sisters, what shall we do?”
If that happens, what would you tell them? What do you think the leaders need to focus on as their highest priority? What would you say are the top three action items (1, 2 and 3)? And what activities should they put aside to focus on those items?
I’ve been thinking about that question for a while. In the remainder of this article, I will give my answer.
In terms of high-priority items, I won’t list a 1, 2 and 3. I think there is only one. I believe that from now on, all the daily, weekly, monthly, yearly activities that take place (e.g., the work of the ethics committee, preparing Bible study material, staff training, meetings and conferences and workshops and retreats, etc.) need to be aligned toward one main goal. If a particular activity supports this goal, then we should proceed with it. If the activity delays, hampers or detracts from this goal, we should put it aside indefinitely.
In my opinion, the goal should be this:
Everyone needs to work together to revise the story of UBF. People must help one another to set aside propaganda and freshly discern what has happened in the community, to understand what God has done thus far, what he is doing now, and what he may want to do in the future.
This is not something that leaders can do in secret by themselves. The process must involve everyone. Leaders will have to stop talking about their own ideas, close their mouths, open their ears, and listen to all the current and ex-members. They will have to create space for honest, open-ended and freewheeling discussion of everything, no holds barred — including the kind of discussion that takes place on UBFriends, which they hate so much. They will have to engage in ethnographic listening for an extended period of time. If they are not capable of that (and, I’m sorry to say, many of them aren’t) then they need to just get out of the way and allow younger and more capable people to do it.
Why are listening and storytelling so important? Because the crisis in UBF is ultimately not one of shrinking numbers, falling income, criticism on UBFriends, bad relations between Americans and Koreans, unchecked power and authoritarian abuse, etc. Those things are all present, of course, and they are serious and troubling. But at the end of the day, those are symptoms of something more fundamental. Those problems could be handled if UBF was healthy. The fact that those problems are not yet solvable demonstrates that the community doesn’t understand what it is. Leaders and members don’t have coherent, credible and compelling reasons for why the organization should exist or why it should do the things it does.
The present crisis is an identity crisis. There is a large and growing disconnect between the story that loyal members have repeatedly told themselves and the evidence that has been accumulating year by year. The old UBF narrative is no longer believed, except perhaps by a small group of people who live in bunkers and cling to their convictions no matter what.
The old UBF narrative goes something like this. (I wrote the following paragraph for another article last year.)
In the early 1960’s, God began a great work in South Korea. A young female American missionary left her missionary compound and lived among the poor. Together with a young Korean pastor, they taught the Bible to university students. Instead of relying on outside funds, the movement became independent and self-supporting. Students overcame their “beggar mentality” and sacrificed everything to support this work. In absolute obedience to Jesus’ world mission command, they went overseas to preach the gospel. God blessed all their sacrifice, hard work, simple faith, etc. and transformed Korea from a nation that receives outside help to a nation that sends missionaries throughout the world. Unlike other churches and movements, this group raises highly committed disciples who are extremely disciplined in Bible study and prayer. They marry by faith, support themselves on the mission field, excel in their studies and become leading doctors, engineers, diplomats and professors. Although they seem highly intelligent, their success is not due to their intelligence but to their self-denial, their boldness in proclaiming the gospel, their absolute obedience and their uncomplicated, childlike faith. Their unique disciplines (Daily Bread, testimony writing, obedience training, marriage by faith, etc.) and their pure, inductive approach to Bible study are extremely potent, and other churches could learn a great deal from them. As they faithfully continue in this special calling, God will use them to send thousands more missionaries and raise countless disciples on university campuses throughout the world. And this is going to transform the nations. For example, it will turn the United States from corruption to its former glory as a nation of people who trust in God. As disciples are raised and missionaries are sent out, each nation will become “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”
That story is told over and over in UBF publications, at conferences, in Bible studies and private conversations. It was a nice story, and at one time it may have been somewhat believable. But today, the story has been debunked. There is such a huge body of contradicting evidence that very few people (if any) still believe the story, even though in UBF settings they might speak and act as though they do. The younger generation certainly does not, because they have very sensitive B.S. detectors, and because the internet gives them instant access to all the counternarratives.
There is overwhelming evidence that Samuel Lee abused his authority, routinely crossing the boundaries of what a pastor ought to do. SL collected, managed and used ministry funds with no oversight, deciding entirely on his own how to use those funds. He exercised undue influence over the personal lives of UBF members. The most obvious example of this is that he decided whom you could marry and when, but there are many more examples, some of them quite nauseating. Often SL did not tell the truth. Many of the stories and accounts about people that he told through his announcements, manuscripts, newsletters, personal letters to people, etc. contained exaggeration, distortion and fabrication. The list of SL’s questionable practices is very long and damning. Many ubf members will testify that they were deeply loved by him, but many others will testify that they were severely hurt and damaged by him. To trumpet the former without acknowledging the latter is blatantly hypocritical. Older Koreans can tolerate this contradiction, because they have a penchant for honoring their elders. But younger people cannot stand it. Americans cannot stand it. Above everything else, the present generation craves authenticity. If UBF doesn’t stop its mythologizing about the character and actions of SL, if it doesn’t stop presenting a one-sided and distorted picture of its own history, the organization in North America has no future.
There is undeniable evidence that UBF is not impacting society as the leaders imagined it would. UBF’s trademark brand of rigorous, high commitment, high loyalty, obey-at-all-costs discipleship training (what you might call martial-arts Christianity, Green Beret-ism, Just Obey-ism…) is not sweeping the world — not because people haven’t seen it, but because they have seen it and have rejected it. Perhaps it could have limited success in certain non-western cultures, but in North America and Europe it just doesn’t work. Where it has been tried, the disciples it produces do not look like healthy, happy, well adjusted, thoughtful, kind, attractive or loving human beings. They act strange and sound weird; they lose sight of who they are and become imitators of the Koreans who lorded over them, lending credence to the allegations that UBF is a cult. The traditional UBF discipleship program ignores too many aspects of spiritual formation. It damages family life. It keeps people from developing meaningful relationships with people outside of UBF. It prevents people from experiencing the full range of freedom that they have in Christ. It replaces the creative work of the Holy Spirit with principles, rules, behaviors and expectations. In a nutshell, it is too legalistic. If UBF doesn’t stop mythologizing its training methods, the organization in North America has no future.
There is undeniable evidence that UBF’s Bible study materials and messages are not nearly as great or effective or inspiring as UBF’s leaders have believed. The material published by UBF Press is not of sufficient quality to be accepted by any reputable publishing house; if it were, there would be no need for UBF Press. The format, content, language and style of UBF’s materials are peculiar to the community, reflecting parochial UBF customs and values, with little or no appeal to anyone on the outside. The messages delivered at UBF conferences (except for The Well) are designed to please the elder missionaries. They reflect what the elder missionaries want to hear, and what the elder missionaries think the younger generation needs to hear, but they are not connecting with and capturing the imagination of Americans. UBF leaders are proud of how many hours they spend preparing Bible study materials and messages, but based on the results, it is obvious that this time is not well spent. If UBF doesn’t stop mythologizing its Bible study materials, the organization in North America has no future.
I could go on and on about how UBF has been unsuccessful at raising indigenous leaders, about stubborn missionaries who should have ceded control decades ago but are still running the show, about the rogue chapter directors who are mistreating people, and so on. But I’ll stop here.
My point is not to prove that UBF is terrible. My point is that UBF has very serious problems, problems that threaten its existence but which leaders have never been willing to face. They seem to think that acknowledging these problems is akin to giving up or losing their faith. Some would rather die than let go of their illusions about UBF. This has been, and still is, the single biggest obstacle to healthy change. Leaders and longtime members do not want to lose face. They don’t anyone or anything to mess with their precious story about who they are and what they have done.
But the bitter irony is that, as long as they hold on to this narrative, they will continue to lose face and lose credibility. That story of UBF is fading away. Indeed, it has already expired. We need to just let it die. We must allow that kernel of wheat to fall to the ground and disappear, so that it can give birth to something new and vital and fruitful.
Members of this generation do not want leaders who appear to be strong and perfect. We don’t care if people make mistakes, as long as they fess up to their mistakes and learn from them. We want leaders of integrity, genuine human beings who have realistic opinions of themselves, who are upfront and honest about their shortcomings and fiascos.
The challenge that UBF faces is this: How do we come to our collective senses, admit our failures, and own those failures? How do we weave those failures into the fabric of the UBF story to make it into a new story, one that is honest and credible and inspiring and gospel-centered? How do we incorporate the stories of all the people who have been hurt by UBF and left UBF over the years, not demonizing or marginalizing them, but validating their experiences and making them an integral part of our understanding of what God wants to do in the UBF community?
Here are some things that I believe. Please read these carefully.
1. I believe that God loves UBF people very much. He always has, and always will.
2. God’s love for UBF people is not rooted in anything they have done for him. God’s love for UBF people is rooted in what Jesus has done for them.
3. God has plans for UBF people. Those plans are great and glorious. But God will never force his plans on UBF. If UBF acts in foolish ways, then God will adapt and revise his plans as often as necessary to make something good happen, something that glorifies Jesus and blesses the Church and all nations of the world.
4. For a while, I believed that God’s plan coincided with the “old ubf narrative” that I wrote above. It’s conceivable that God was willing to make something like that happen (minus all the tribalism and Korean cultural imperialism and triumphalism), But that plan has been neutered and derailed. That story is too self-aggrandizing and unrealistic. It ain’t happening, folks.
5. If UBF stubbornly clings to its old narrative, in the same way that the people of Israel clung to their own tribalistic narrative, then the organization will experience epic failure. That failure may come sooner rather than later.
6. If there is an epic failure, God will still have a plan to use the organization. He might allow UBF to go down in history as a textbook example of
* how not to do evangelism
* how not to raise disciples and train leaders
* how not to attempt cross-cultural ministry
* how not to study the Bible
* how not to interact with the Body of Christ
and so on. The epic failure of UBF may help other Christians to avoid our mistakes. It may bring mission-minded evangelicals to a new and deeper understanding of what the gospel is, and what the gospel is not.
7. If UBF lets go of its old narrative, allowing that story fall to the ground and die, then it may yet experience a resurrection. That death will be very painful to some, but ultimately it will bring new life.
8. If UBF experiences a rebirth, the story of New-BF may become a textbook example of
* how to listen to one’s critics and truly *hear* what they are saying
* how to apologize to people that you have hurt and reconcile with them
* how to corporately repent and join the rest of the Body of Christ
* how to build a loving church that ethnically diverse and truly multigenerational
* how to build a loving church that is theologically diverse, maintaining a foundation of orthodoxy while fully embracing people with different views on sacraments, miracles, gifts of the Spirit, inerrancy of Scripture, ..
9. The most likely scenario for what lies ahead is not a complete epic failure or a complete rebirth, but some mixture of the two. There will be mysteries and surprises.
10. If UBF and its leaders are slow to act, there will be many more people who, for valid reasons, cannot and should not hang around to wait for change. God will call them to go elsewhere. That has happened again and again. Many of the people who have left UBF over the years (in many cases, they were driven out) were the most gifted and qualified to lead the ministry. How many times have missionaries prayed for God to send them disciples who would become their ancestors of faith, their “Abraham” and “Sarah”? I believe that every single one of those prayers has been answered. I believe that God has sent countless Abrahams and Sarahs to all those UBF chapters across America. And the vast majority of those Abrahams and Sarahs were driven away by lack of love, bad ministry practices, and because those disciples would not or could not adapt to their shepherds’ ethnocentric expectations.